The Complete Humphrey Jennings Volume Two: Fires Were Started Review

Click here for a review of The Complete Humphrey Jennings Volume One, The First Days.

The BFI’s latest major documentary undertaking reaches its second volume with Fires Were Started. Over the course of three dual-format editions The Complete Humphrey Jennings will trace the filmmaker’s directorial career from his first assignments in 1934 to his untimely death in 1950. Volume one took in the first six years and fourteen films; volume two offers up the more concentrated period of 1941 to 1943 and just five films, although here we find Jennings’ sole feature, “Fires Were Started -”. The overall running time may be a little shorter this time around (though, extras included, we’re still getting three hours plus of material) but the quality is significantly greater. Of the five films featured, each claims company among his very best.

The earliest inclusion, The Heart of Britain, continues in a similar vein to his previous short (and volume one closer) London Can Take It!. It trades the capital for other parts of the UK, such as cotton mills of Lancaster and the steel industry of Sheffield. But the message is much the same: one of British stoicism and getting the job done. Over scenes of female factory workers indulging in a spot of downtime play, the narrator asks us, “Do you see these Lancashire lasses cowering?” At another point the film interviews a woman who recalls washing “the blood and dust out of [her] mouth” whilst assisting the injured during the air raid. She does so not in the search of sympathy but as a means of laying down the facts. This is what we are faced with, she is saying, and we’re getting on with it. Needless to say, such a candid moment has its effect, especially in a British film from the early forties.

The Heart of Britain exists in two versions, both of which are present on this set. The difference is in the commentator, with the overseas edition (as well as being slightly longer) utilising the broadcaster Ed Murrow. He understandably has an alternative take given the alternative audience, and it’s interesting to hear, for example, Sheffield referred to as “England’s Pittsburgh or Detroit”. Despite such concessions, This is England (as this alternative version was known) maintains the to-camera interviews with the ordinary folk, including the “blood and dust” woman. Most striking is the Yorkshire steel worker with an almost impenetrable accent. He does make you wonder what US audiences must have made of him - surely subtitles would have been a necessity!

The use of the common man, present in Jennings’ work since before the war, would prove integral to “Fires Were Started -” and The Silent Village. Before these, however, came a pair of more poetically-inclined shorts. Words for Battle and Listen to Britain made do without conventional commentary, without reportage, and without the kind of propagandist message that could be repeatedly hammered home. In their place they offered up paeans to British-ness and the spirit of the Brits during wartime. Words for Battle did so by having Laurence Olivier deliver various passages from Shakespeare, Milton, Blake and so forth over images of spitfires, evacuees and the like. The quotes relate to the land, the culture and the history of Britain, eventually drowned out in the final passage by tanks making their way past Big Ben. On paper it’s quite a simple idea and perhaps suggestive of nothing more than the most obvious jingoism. Yet it Jennings’ hands (and those of his editor Stewart McAllister) the results are really quite remarkable. Independent from each other both the words and the images should be generally familiar; the latter having since been used and re-used in countless documentaries on the Second World War. But placed together they are rendered afresh and ultimately rather stirring.

Listen to Britain took Words for Battle to its logical conclusion. Though an emphasis is placed upon sound, the whole of British culture is reflected - not just the words of its poets, playwrights and politicians - as too is the experience of life on the home front. There is no voice-over, just a brief introduction by Leonard Brockington and then onto the “one great symphony,” as he describes it. There are many remarkable things about Listen to Britain, but the one that truly stands out is free-for-all approach. As he seeks to encompass the nation he takes in all walks of life and both high art and low culture. We see Flanagan and Allen perform ‘Underneath the Arches’ to a canteen of munitions workers. We also see Myra Hess perform Mozart to an audience that includes Kenneth Clark and Queen Mary. In his booklet essay John Wyver points out a tiny detail from the Hess sequence in which a young woman listens whilst leaning next to a Paolo Uccello painting: “this glimpsed, two-second image, with its layers of the personal, the public and the political in the juxtaposition of one individual, medieval warfare and the breadth of European culture, is typical of this endlessly rewarding and still surprising film.”

Equally remarkable is the fluidity as Jennings and McAllister (who share the “directed and edited by” credit) traverse so much material within the scant 19-minute running time. It all seems so effortless, yet clearly the task of corralling so many aspects of life during wartime must into such a short space of time have been an immense one. Not that the end results met with favour from some of their documentary cohorts, however. Edgar Anstey in the Spectator questioned why “the current sights and sounds of Britain” were being rendered as “some curious kind of museum exhibit or a figment of the romantic imagination of Mass-Observation.” Yet that romantic imagination clearly struck a chord and continues to do so to this day, seventy years after its initial screenings. Listen to Britain played especially well with factory audiences, where screenings would regularly be held to applause and sometimes even tears. By losing the more didactic elements which Anstey seemed to miss - the clear-cut message, the voice-over narration to ensure that it wasn’t lost on the viewer - the film instead provokes a firmly emotional response. Perhaps this is why it remains one of the best-loved of all propaganda films, indeed of all British cinema.

One of the few contenders to such claims was Jennings’ next effort. “Fires Were Started -” was a very different beast from his earlier films: his sole feature and also a work of fiction, in this case spent entirely in the company of a group of auxiliary firemen over a 24-hour period. They’re stationed amidst the docks of London’s East End and played entirely by their real-life equivalents. Through the use of non-professionals we get parallels with the Italian neo-realists, of course (Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione was also completed in 1943). But more interesting is the manner in which such a decision created some of British cinema’s first genuine working class heroes onscreen. There had been comedians for whom the ‘ordinary bloke’ persona was key to their success (most notably George Formby despite his own middle-class background), but this was never the case for a serious star. None of the performers in “Fires Were Started -” would act again, yet they can arguably lay claim to setting the template for those who followed in the next decade, the Stanley Bakers and so forth. Here was cinema that placed the common man at its forefront (though not all of the firemen come from humble backgrounds) and never made a fuss about it.

Indeed, there’s a pleasing no-nonsense quality to “Fires Were Started -” to the point where it resembles an action movie. The simplicity of its set-up creates that leanness to which all such genre films aspire. In this case we get to meet the men (including a newcomer to the district), indulge in a little of their banter as we get to know them, and then follow them on a job which plays out as one giant set-piece occupying half the running time. Reduced to such a breakdown, the film isn’t all that different from Seven Samurai, say, or The Dirty Dozen or Armageddon. Despite his lack of experience in feature film production or, for that matter, works of fiction (save a couple of acting turns in some early GPO Film Unit shorts) Jennings recognises the classic nature of such a structure and simply leaves it be. His efforts are instead spent on providing the additional colour, on seeking out that little touches which will humanise the film. As the man who made Spare Time, The First Days, Listen to Britain and the rest he simply turns to those elements which had fuelled his early works: a non-condescending attitude towards class; an interest in the quirkier aspects of everyday life; the evocative use of both high and low art, in this case a show-stopping rendition of ‘One Man Went to Mow’ and a brief snippet of Macbeth near the film’s close.

Jennings continued with fiction for his next work, though it’s such a distinctive hybrid that a proper description is in order. The Silent Village is a dramatic recreation of events which occurred in the village of Lidice in 1942. Lidice is in Czechoslovakia, but for the purposes of the film finds itself transposed to the similar mining community of Cwmgiedd in Wales. The opening titles and a framing narrative make the distinction clear and as a result The Silent Village is able to serve as a number of things. It is both a tribute and a testimonial to the people of Lidice. To many it will also mark the first have heard of the events which took place in the village and in that alone it serves a vital purpose. By situating the action within the UK the film would have also played out as an ‘it could happen here’ warning.

Much like the firemen of “Fires Were Started -”, the community of The Silent Village was effectively playing itself. As a result Jennings was able to capture their everyday existence in his typical documentary fashion during the film’s earliest stages. We watch as children attend their school lessons, the men work the mines and evening meals are enjoyed. We also listen as male voice choirs hold these moments together. Their presence of course recalls Listen to Britain, but more importantly it also strikes a contrast with the Nazis once the invasion commences. We never get the chance to properly see the enemy. They do occasionally figure within the frame, but only as silent participants reduced to the distinctive uniforms and Nazi insignia. We do hear them, however, via loudspeaker as proclaim a state of emergency within the village or the banning of the Welsh language in schools. We also hear intermittent gunshot as they set about executing dissenters.

There’s a marked difference between the gunfire and the male voice choirs, a case of violence versus culture. As Jennings repeatedly shows us throughout the films on this volume, it is the latter which shines through and ultimately wins out. For him the war effort came down to two strongly defined forces: our cultural heritage and the common man. Jennings himself has now become part of the former, but such forces remain just as strong today. No doubt this is why his film continue to resonate so strongly.


The BFI’s second Jennings-dedicated volume is very much the equal to Volume One in terms of presentation and additional content. It is packaged as a dual-format edition containing both Blu-ray and DVD formats, each of which is encoded for all regions and houses all of the films and their alternate edits where applicable. In this case both The Heart of Britain and “Fires Were Started -” exist in different versions, the slightly longer This is England for the former and the eleven-minute longer I Was a Fireman for the former.

Unsurprisingly, the image and sound quality of the films varies from one to the other. “Fires Were Started -” has its fair share of minute scratches peppering the image, whilst This is England has the hissiest soundtrack of the bunch and a somewhat softer image to its The Heart of Britain counterpart. Of the five films and two alternatives, The Silent Village is in the best shape with little visible damage and mostly clean, crisp audio. In all cases we’re seeing and hearing the best elements available, however, and so it would be unwise to expect any better. (It’s important to note too that Jennings made use of stock footage - I recognised snippets from Paul Rotha’s The Face of Britain in The Heart of Britain, for example - so pristine imagery would not have always existed in the first place.) Importantly, their transfer onto Blu-ray look wonderful and demonstrate no ill effects in making the transition to disc. Despite the varying levels of damage we are nonetheless getting superb clarity and a terrific amount of detail. Given the films high standing among the ranks of great British cinema (for me only David Lean’s Great Expectations offers up a challenge to either Listen to Britain or “Fires Were Started -”) it is only right that we should be seeing them in as optimal a condition as possible. For all the inherent flaws, the BFI haven’t let us down.

As well as the alternate versions, Volume Two also contains a 40-page, fully illustrated booklet. Within we find a reprint of Lindsay Anderson’s famous ‘Only Connect’ article for Sight & Sound, Patrick Russell on Jennings’ time at the Crown Film Unit, plus lengthy individual essays for each of the five inclusions. The expected full credits and transfer notes are also present as are pleasingly weighty bios for Jennings, McAllister and Ian Dalrymple, the man who produced the first four of this volume’s titles.

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